Virgin America discloses Gogo usage rates

Washington DC
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Virgin America has recorded a 10% to 15% average passenger usage rate for its in-flight Internet service now that its entire fleet is outfitted with Aircell's Gogo air-to-ground Internet, and that figure is expected to rise.

Usage is already higher on select routes, for example Boston-San Francisco has a roughly 30% up-take rate, while rates on transcontinental flights range from 15%-20%.

"Our take-up rates continue to increase. I think WiFi is a tipping point," Virgin America vice president of marketing Porter Gale says, explaining she expects passengers to book flights based on the availability of in-flight connectivity.

The San Francisco-based carrier began offering connectivity late last year and completed equipage on all 28 of its Airbus aircraft by 20 May.

Passengers are able to access the Internet and virtual private network (VPN) e-mail accounts using WiFi-enabled devices at a cost of $12.95 for daytime flights longer than three hours, $9.95 for daylight trips less than three hours, $5.95 for red eye flights and $7.95 for handheld devices.

Gale says equipage has been a worthwhile investment, albeit a "big financial commitment. We're certainly not at breakeven yet."

In addition to finalizing Gogo equipage, Virgin America has been working on integrating its broadband offering with its seat-back in-flight entertainment (IFE) system. The integrated system should be available in the first or second quarter of 2010, Gale says.

The integrated system will offer a similar experience to surfing the Web on a laptop, but it will not have the full-functionality of a laptop due to the carrier's seat-back system using a Linux-based operating system, she explains.

Virgin America may offer social media applications such as Twitter, which enables users to send 140-character messages in real-time, through the integrated seat-back system, Gale adds.

Passengers will also be able to make real-time credit card purchases once IFE is combined with Internet connectivity. At present, passengers who order food, beverages, premium television channels and new-release movies over the IFE's touch screens have their credit card processed once the once the aircraft lands.

Virgin America is also making software changes to add more television channels to its IFE, including "more network players", Gale says.

More channels will be available during the fourth quarter, around which time the airline will likely introduce a virtual Virgin America store.

In addition to finishing its Gogo rollout last month, Virgin America has strengthened its relationship with search firm Google by offering its web services, known as Google Apps. Those applications include an email offering, known as Gmail, and Google Docs, which allows users to share documents, presentations and spreadsheets. Applications can be accessed online and do not have to be stored on a computer hard drive, enabling enhanced productivity and connectivity in-flight, Gale says.

The California companies previously partnered to offer Google Maps and Gale says she expects Virgin America "will continue to partner with Google in the future".